Safety expert: Make a plan, be ready to execute

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The shooting at a FedEx Ground facility that left eight workers dead has renewed questions about what companies can do to try to keep workers safe and respond to threats in a way that is also efficient for operations.


Does every workplace need an armed guard? How important is secured parking? What can companies do to prepare for active-shooter situations?

IBJ posed these and other questions to Eric Dietz, director of Purdue University’s Homeland Security Institute where he educates students on how to deal with a litany of threats, including active shooter situations and mass shootings.

Dietz was the founding executive director of Indiana’s Department of Homeland Security and has spent his entire career (including 22 years in the U.S. Army) working to mitigate threats—and help others do the same.

What went through your mind, from a safety standpoint, when you first heard about this mass shooting at the FedEx facility on April 15?

The two things I thought about is: First, what preparative measures had been done in advance by the location, by in this case FedEx? Then, what kind of preparation had the individuals done?

[At Purdue] we’ve been doing some research work on what Homeland Security has coined “run, hide, fight,” which is basically the methodology used to try to avoid a mass shooter event by an individual. This is one of those times [that the] best policy with somebody who’s committing a gun crime is making sure somebody [else] with a gun is around, whether it’s an individual or armed security.

What are the most important ways companies can avoid having major tragedies like this occur at their places of employment?

When we were doing this work for schools, one of the issues we looked at specifically was the school fire drill, which has become a stalwart in all of our schools. It’s required by Indiana law to do it monthly.

You could substitute severe weather and active shooter drills for some of those monthly drills. We’ve not lost a child to an active fire in a school really since the ‘50s, when this law was put in place to protect grievous loss of life in schools.

We’ve thought about how we might do [active shooter] drills in a way that isn’t traumatic to the kids, so that they don’t go home and have nightmares about it, but they feel some reassurance that they know what they’re supposed to do in the case of an emergency.

I think this is also true in business.

Should active shooter training be a regular part of workplace training?

Yeah, I certainly think it should be. … But it probably needs to be refined a little bit, especially in the training, to be basically: Run if you can, hide if you can’t and fight as a last resort.

In what ways are workplaces most vulnerable to these types of situations?

All workplaces are going to have some vulnerability, because we are an open society and we have a Second Amendment that says we have a right to bear arms. So, there’s always going to be some risks with that.

The miracle is these things are not more routine than they are. I guess it is testament to just how law abiding the vast majority of the public is with firearms and with everything else that we expect in an open society.

A [solution] would be armed security. A single armed security guard is a weak point, though, just like a single law enforcement officer in the school would be a weak point. But it does offer, at least according to the FBI data, a substantial deterrent for someone selecting your location to do these kinds of violent acts.

When you have a ‘good guy with a gun’ who is not a police officer or security guard, does that create confusion for law enforcement, if they think there might be more than one shooter?

Of course, it could. The issue you’ve got, though, is the average police response time in our country is—depending on the community—five to 10 minutes. The average active shooter event is over in three, and they can produce dozens of casualties.

So, the simple fact is: If you have not taken protective measures with armed security, but you’ve made yourself a gun-free zone, you make yourself a lucrative target for … a gunman to have their way until police do show up.

When somebody goes to the car to try to retrieve a gun [or has one on them], they certainly have put themselves at risk, two-fold. One, they’re at risk trying to protect their coworkers, if they brought a firearm into the target area, into the place of business or the place that a gunman has targeted.

But they also are huge risks to the police who don’t really have a clear grasp of the situation. So, anybody who does that is going to need to have a superior amount of caution and training, to [improve what happens] when police do show up—how they stand down and how they ensure they don’t become the attention of law enforcement, to everybody’s detriment.

How does a company decide whether to have security guards or whether it needs secure parking?

Each company has to make decisions based upon what they can afford within the business, and how they can manage those things. The research that we have done looked at the menu of options that seemed to be tried and true.

Every time where one of these events happened, folks will say, “Well, why isn’t there armed security?” Other people will say, “We should let people conceal carry,” or “we should improve security measures and door locks.” All of those have substantial benefit.

When we used computer modeling, we found the overwhelming best solution in a school is adding armed security. We also looked at technology like automatic door locks. We looked at door locks outright, and we also looked at gunshot detectors. We found all of those technologies can be helpful.

But again, the overwhelmingly highest value was adding the armed security. The second one was adding concealed-carry individuals.

How should someone handle themselves if they come into contact with or see somebody who could be an active shooter?

I think the first thing is you try to avoid them. Certainly, if somebody has a firearm and they’re determined to do harm, you don’t want to confront them. That’s where the idea for “run, hide, fight” came from—the idea basically being, “Get out of the way of the gunman.”

In those cases where someone runs, [the strategy] works because it helps generate space. For somebody running, you present yourself as a harder target. Hiding is not a very substantial strategy because somebody who’s determined to create casualties with a firearm can find those that are hiding, and the outcome is quite poor.

Fighting is doing something not necessarily to confront a person who’s armed, but to cause distractions, make the targeting of you as an individual that much harder. That may mean throwing something at them. It may mean doing other things that are disruptive to the person that’s firing of a weapon.

FedEx and a lot of other companies have policies in place for cell phones and cell phone usage. How do you view those sorts of policies through the lens of worker safety?

I understand worker safety is one of the things that is a primary focus. I think [when] we have these kinds of events, they’re an … example that the inability to have a communication device like a cell phone on our person dramatically increases police response time, because you’ve dramatically changed the number of people who might be able to make that emergency call.

My research would indicate that it might be better to deal with those kinds of instances [of improper cell phone use at work] as a disciplinary action matter—if people are using their phone in a way during work hours that is contrary to safe workplace or proper service environment—but allowing people to have those phones on them.

If I was a supervisor, I would probably not prohibit them because of the benefit.

How does not having a phone on you alter a witness or victim’s ability to inform friends and family in these situations?

This highlights the need for reunification [plans] and implementing an emergency plan. I do think that, even without a cell phone, someone can have an emergency plan, where they can call their loved ones and let them know that we’re okay.

But that presumes a lot of things these days. Many of us don’t know the cell numbers of our spouses or our children, because they’re programmed in our phones. We hardly ever use them. We use them, but we don’t look at them—we don’t have them memorized like we would’ve had an individual home phone number memorized when I was a kid.

I think the idea of having an emergency plan is an important part of having a solid safety plan as a family. If it’s a single point of failure, like having a cell phone on you, that’s not necessarily real sound. It is smart to have a backup plan.

Overall, how important are employee assistance programs and mental health coverage and insurance in preventing problems? Additionally, how do those health benefits come into play when tragedies like this arise?

It’s probably not my scope to be looking at the mentally ill and their treatment, but I can tell you that having a program in place post-disaster to try to help manage the survivors can be awfully valuable.

It’s [my] experience that people having quicker access to some of those services helps in the recovery process or helped with resiliency of allowing us to go back to normal more quickly. I think the same would be true for dealing with workplace violence or workplace stress. Having those same counseling resources, I’m sure would have a similar effect for trying to help calm down situations as opposed to making them worse.

What are some things a company executive should do today to ensure their workplace and employees are ready to deal with an active shooter situation?

Executives ought to first have a plan. These tragic events—while uncommon—really highlight and show the presence of a plan or not having a plan. So having a plan that works for your company, your location is vital.

The second part to having a plan is instituting the employee or the occupant training that’s needed to implement the plan. And the last piece is exercising and practicing the plan.

Having the plan, having the training in place and doing exercises, followed by reflection, reviewing the results of the training and plan that’s done by an exercise or responded to in a real-life event. Then, improving the planning process.

You need to keep in mind that the plans are not a static document. The plan should be not a pristine binder, but something that’s tattered, marked up with modifications that need to be made the next time we revamp it.

We don’t need to be especially resource dependent on these. The training videos might be a two- or three-minute YouTube video, as opposed to taking time from the entire company to actually run an exercise. Simply watching a video that reminds us of the skills that we need.•

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